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Big spenders: ‘Broke’ state finds money for $50 mil. Capitol rehab


Natasha Korecki

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Updated: October 4, 2013 6:14AM

There’s been a steady drumbeat out of Springfield these last few months about the state’s fiscal crisis, devastating budget cuts and, most notably, the need for pension reform.

Curiously, state politicians have been mum on the 500-pound gorilla in the room.

Or more precisely: the 300-pound chandelier hanging from the ceiling.

At a time when Illinois is unquestionably in a budget crisis, the state Capitol is undergoing a confounding exercise in opulence.

A $50 million renovation is under way, including new, copper-plated entry doors, stenciled ceiling paint, ornate sculptures and, yes, 300-pound office chandeliers.

Our Springfield reporter, Dave McKinney, detailed the meticulousness of the renovation in a recent Sunday story, noting then that one aim of the project, which has been under way for two years, is to preserve the late 1800s architectural significance of the building as well as update safety.

No one’s going to quarrel with renovations necessary for security and safety’s sake. And in healthier times, most Illinoisans would even be all for a classy-looking state Capitol.

These aren’t those times. The Civic Federation estimates that there are billions of dollars in unfunded capital projects at state universities, colleges and other public institutions in Illinois. Illinois’ bond rating has repeatedly plummeted because of the state’s $100 billion pension crisis. Meanwhile, the stack of unpaid bills to vendors stands at nearly $7 billion.

Among the offices outfitted with the renovations are those of Illinois State Treasurer Dan Rutherford; 13 senators; six Illinois House members; support staff, and the press corps.

Rutherford has taken great pains to cultivate a down-to-earth, “Joe the Plumber” image, famously posting Facebook photos of him changing a toilet seat.

The typically reachable Rutherford, who is in a four-way primary race for the GOP nod for governor, has railed against Gov. Pat Quinn’s leadership and blamed him for the state’s credit downgrade.

On this renovation though, Rutherford had no comment, according to a spokeswoman.

“It’s certainly understandable how this construction project could be perceived as extravagant given the financial situation of the state currently,” Rutherford spokeswoman Catie Sheehan said. She added: “I think there is some value in historical preservation.”

If these times were desperate enough for Quinn to issue a line-item veto to slash lawmakers’ salaries, then is it too much to ask to dial back on the excesses of this renovation?

Isn’t this akin to redecorating your house after you’ve failed to pay the mortgage?

Neither Quinn nor a spokesman would comment.

Last week, Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, questioned the timing of the expense.

“It will be difficult in this time of great financial distress for the state of Illinois for anyone to look beyond the sparkling rehabilitation of the Capitol building and not wonder how effective that investment will be in stabilizing the state’s ongoing fiscal and pension crisis,” Msall told the Chicago Sun-Times.

In that sense, there’s both a very real message and a symbolic one when the state cannot solve its fiscal mess but begins hanging 300-pound chandeliers.

Our state leaders can change that message. But first, they have to start talking.

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